Sunday, October 30, 2011

Why Writing?

Writing is powerful. Writers have the choice of what, how and when to share, along with how much of themselves to pour into the words. I am learning to craft the sentences, purposefully placing words for balance, rhythm and emphasis. Building the scenes, enriching the lines with vivid details, hand-selecting each variable to bring a story to life. I am learning to write with purpose. Somehow I am starting to master the techniques and mechanics. Once mastered, miraculously, I may even have something meaningful to say. Then I will be ready. Ready for what? I am still not sure, but ready for certain I will be.

The kids at Longwood Gardens
last Sunday.
started grad school not only wanting to know how to write, but I wanted to know what to think, or rather, what I think. In this often muddled mess in my mind, distracted and pulled in countless directions simultaneously, forcing concrete words onto paper will at least solidify what I think at one point in time, a snapshot of clarity in an otherwise blurry scene of rapidly passing days. Solid writing will no doubt increase the number of clear and totally focused scenes in my days, increase the opportunity to pause and reflect, I hope.

I raise my children: we laugh, we eat, we walk, we read. We practice multiplication facts, Spanish, and spelling words. I sign planners and tests. I wash their clothes and their dishes, prepare their meals. And each day I do it all again, hoping they end up happy adults, able to support themselves, and making confident choices that make sense for them. Good people with strong minds and soaring hearts that make their worlds better places to be, bring joy to their loved ones and bring out the best in themselves and those around them. I work at this labor of love each day and each night, with a tenacity to rival the wealthiest workaholic, but is it enough? If the dishes are scattered around the kitchen, have I failed? When the cat is curled up in the pile of clean laundry still not folded (again), my work is not done. If the child is rude, unhappy, or hungry, my job is not done.

With writing, at some point, the piece is done. It may not be good, it may not leave my desk, but it will be finished. Clarity, purpose, drive, goals, and proof – it will be written down. The words will live so that I can touch them, see them, hear them, relive them again and know that I have accomplished something real, something meaningful, even if only to me. And that is enough.

The last hibiscus bloom of the season.
Fall foliage covered in snow.
Photo credit to my husband, David. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Is it Real?

Camera strap around my neck, I wanted to photograph a red leaf floating in water. Along with my eleven-year old son Jacob and his friend Will, we set off to find a woodland stream in the afternoon. Both boys eagerly helped on my quest for colorful foliage. Jacob found a red maple leaf along the path and Will shared an orange leaf shaped like a three-pronged t-rex footprint, probably from a sassafras tree.

They led me to a stream off the path. We wove between the thick brush and thorns to reach the gentle rippling water. The boys jumped down several feet to the soggy eroded bank. The sandy streambed was wide, thick with downed branches and lined with open tree roots. What little remained of the stream since the heavy rains earlier in the month was then shallow and less than a couple of feet across. I carefully climbed down after the boys to a bank that was recently underwater.

Jacob stepped over the water and scouted the ideal spot for the leaf to hit the water. As he dropped the leaf, he insisted that our floating leaf was not the truth.

“It isn’t real, Mom,” he said.  “You cannot make nature how you want it just for a picture.”

Snapping a few shots, I argued the leaf came from this forest.

“The leaf could have landed in the water. Just because we moved it does not make it a lie. Does it?” I asked. He shook his head again.

“You can’t mess with nature and pretend it just happened,” he said.

I followed his eyes and saw the moss-covered waterlogged rock just after he did. He scooped out the leaf and carefully positioned it on the rock.

I asked him, “I’m not pretending. Is it real? Is this fiction or is it nonfiction?”

He looks up with a puzzled expression, processing the question or maybe trying to figure out if I am mocking him.

“It is real leaf. It fell from a tree in this forest. Other leaves have fallen into this stream. What’s wrong with this one?” I asked.

He kept shaking his head, and then both boys ran off to play downstream. I watched my red leaf and thought about what is real and what is close enough to real. All I really wanted was a picture of a red leaf in the water.

Climbing out of the sandy streambed I clambered through the brush and thorns back to the path. A bright orange leaf caught my eye, a little smaller than the first one. I picked up the leaf and moved it just a few feet and put it on a football-sized rock surrounded by crunchy brown curling leaves. The leaf was absolutely perfect; the breeze probably brought it down while we were at the stream. But somehow it looked out of place on the rock surrounded by dead, drying leaves. It was not real; the breeze did not drop it here. It looked false and orchestrated. Maybe Jacob was right after all. I no longer wanted a picture of it.

I turned away from the lie I created and called out, “Time to go, boys.”

I walked ahead. Jacob came back to the path first, while Will lingered a few minutes.

“Hey, mom! Come check this out!” he hollered.

Backtracking along the path, I find him squatting down over a rock with the bright orange sassafras leaf.

“What do you think? This is real nature, Mom. It’s beautiful,” he said and looked up at me.

“I did that, but I couldn’t even shoot it! I knew it wasn’t your version of real.”

Laughing together, we walked away and continued our debate about real and staged, or to me, about creative nonfiction and fiction. A few minutes later, Will emerged out of the thorns and brush.

He calls out, “Ms. Valerie, come check out this leaf!” We turned around and saw him standing at the same orange leaf on the same rock.

It was real because it caught all of our eyes. It was real because we marked it as special out of thousands of leaves. It was real even if I chose its resting place rather than chance or the breeze. Without my hand placing that leaf on the rock, we would not have paused, would not have noticed it at all. It would only have been another dying leaf on the forest floor.

We walked out of the forest together, laughing and debating the artful leaves around us. Though my image of that orange leaf on the rock remains, I forgot to go back and take its picture.

Friday, October 14, 2011

LAX, Little Girls and Acorns

From here I can see the open fields behind the elementary school. Behind me the covered pavilion with tables, the little country church, the library, the elementary school, new playground and the smaller sport fields surround me. I am back on my favorite bench under the oak trees; the bench I did not realize was a favorite until tonight.

The game is well-under way by now under the bright field lights. The kids’ games are during the day, but the Over 35 Lacrosse league claims the fields on weekend nights. Two teams of middle-aged men in either black or white jerseys wage a battle across the close-cropped grass. The physicality of their play shocks me, off the field they are so mild mannered. Their bodies crash into each other, aluminum sticks clanking at impact. A long-stick defenseman pushes off the attack and the white ball sails down the field. The goalie surely has the last beams of the sun in his eyes, but his form looks intently focused on the action. For once the big boys are having fun on the fields.


The baseball diamond directly below me is deserted tonight. This is not a surprise in September; it has been deserted for months. In the next field a lacrosse game rages. The individual shouts of instruction and encouragement are indistinguishable from my vantage point as the voices mingle to form a small roar.

Three little girls I don’t recognize are playing together, sent along to make sure their fathers come home soon after the game. The leader of the group has long blonde hair with a clip securing the wisps out of her face. She is zipped up in an aquamarine sweatshirt, too thin for tonight’s chilly air. The next girl is taller than her friends, but eager to follow through with the leader’s ideas. Her light brown hair falls to the shoulder of her open purple jacket with last winter’s ski-pass still dangling from the zipper. Her bright pink bottoms are easy to spot even as the sun goes down. The last child wears a red t-shirt with a glitter decal with a small fuzzy coat. They are all three in sneakers, ready to run and play.

Mostly they collect acorns and chatter about finding the squirrels. They toss them in the air and clap when they like where they fly. Sometimes they stomp on the metal bleachers down the hill. After singing a song from the radio and running around the park, the leader has them collect the acorns and they line them up on the seats of the bleachers. The pieces go flying as their feet grind them into dust. The squirrels forgotten, they will have to find their own dinner tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Bench, Part 2

Sitting on a weathered bench on the high hill overlooking the rolling fields, I watch the sun dropping just over the trees. Often I have sat in this spot on this hill watching the boys’ practice. This short bench does not look like much, but it provides summer shade under the grand white oaks and a picturesque place for friends to gather. Moss and mildew-covered concrete braces support now charcoal-shaded wood planks also discolored by time. A crisp autumn breeze blows through the trees surrounding the fields, reminding me why I love the change in seasons. The trees now in silhouette almost block out what is left of the day.

Just above the tree line a large flock of black starlings black out the sky. My eyes follow their path across the sky as the hundreds of birds jockey for position. They remind me of a smaller group of birds circling over this field. Just over a month ago I watched her mother release fourteen white doves, one for every year of her life. I have lived in at least a dozen homes in over half as many states. But in this place where I watch my children play, where I sit and watch the sunset, where I feel the triumphs and tragedies of a community, in this place I feel at home.


I stepped away for a few quiet minutes of reflection. Behind me a group of fifteen to twenty boys are playing with a football. The deep sand of the volleyball pitch mutes the thundering herd of barefoot boys wrestling each other to the ground. The sand does not mute their screams and squeals; sometimes I make out the voices of my sons in the melee.

My bench sits high above the lower baseball diamonds and soccer fields. Without warning a loud buzz comes from the field. Bright lights atop four metal poles towering over the full-size field flicker as they warm-up. The first players arrive for an evening lacrosse game. Their voices carry but not their words as they suit up in bulky pads and gloves.

Three little girls with sweet voices, probably seven or eight years old, run up to collect acorns from the tree by my bench. Farther away, the coach of the boys’ fall baseball team belts out instructions. The evening breezes graciously take the sounds of all their games away. No one is talking to me. I listen to only the wind and the crickets. The peaceful silence is beautiful; the only clear voice is mine.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Bench

Sitting on a weathered bench on the high hill overlooking the rolling fields, I watch as the sun is just starting to set. I did not set out to watch the sunset, but I am pleased to have chosen a spot with sweeping views of the rural countryside. A mature deciduous forest surrounds the sports fields. In a few weeks the leaves will be painted all the shades of the season. The early evening air is crisp and clear. Pulling down the sleeves of my sweater, I open my journal to write.

Spindly daddy-long-legs share the bench with me. Our two-year old yellow lab, Remington, is checking out the new smells, trailing his black canvas leash a few feet away. I turn to check on him just in time to see nature call smack dab on top of the leash. I close my journal, collect the dog and head over to the pavilion to find a bag. After a quick rinse of the leash, together we retrace our steps and remove the offending mess in the grass.


Back on the bench, the sun has dropped lower and the trees are swaying in the evening breeze. I open my journal to write, the pages flapping underneath my hand. All of my senses are tuned to the crisp autumn air whispering through the leaves of the white oaks around me. It is an ancient sound, a timeless gift too often taken for granted.

Not a minute goes by and I hear the deep rumble of his car pulling into the parking lot. Moving from hot and humid Houston, he bought the black convertible for autumn evenings like this. I close my journal again. I call for the dog, again, and we head over to greet him. The dog gives a far better greeting, pulling at the leash, wagging his entire body, and whining in anticipation.

Eager to show off the new audio work in the car, the music surrounds the car and fills the immediate area. He pops open the trunk. The vibrating subwoofers are full of energy and rich bass undertones. His energy level is as high as the volume and he says, “Let’s go for a drive!”